Independent review faults IMPD for May 2020 protest response, suggests police tactics may have escalated tensions

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INDIANAPOLIS — A three-member commission appointed by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett to review the incidents and police response surrounding last spring’s riots in downtown faulted IMPD for a lack of training and preparation for the potential of protests getting out of hand in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis and the fatal officer-involved shooting of Dreasjon Reed in Indianapolis.

The 44-page report also faults IMPD for not expressing enough “empathy” with the protesters and responding with tactics that seem to exacerbate the crowd’s anxiety that led to violence.

Approximately $8 million in property damage was reported between May 29-31, 2020, with more than 100 arrests and two murders.

The commission, consisting of former U.S. Attorney Deborah Daniels, former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Myra Selby and Martin University President Dr. Sean Huddleston, interviewed dozens of witnesses and participants regarding the three nights of unrest downtown and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, many of them revealed in a FOX59 News investigation last fall.

The report is titled “Final Report of Independent Review Panel: Regarding the Response of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to the Community Protests of May 29-June 1, 2020 in Downtown Indianapolis.”

The commission found there was insufficient anticipation by IMPD that the potential for violence associated with anti-police protests was present in Indianapolis despite nationwide demonstrations in the weeks before regarding the Floyd killing and community discord over the killing of Reed at 62nd Street and Michigan Road earlier in May, a homicide that was determined to be non-criminal by a special prosecutor based on an Indiana State Police investigation.

The report faults IMPD for not being able to better differentiate between peaceful protesters and the “opportunists” mixed within the crowds who sought to commit mayhem under the cover of the downtown demonstrations.

IMPD officers were unprepared and insufficiently trained to respond to such overwhelmingly large crowds, as no officers present had ever faced such an incident and experience with tear gas agents was scant.

“I think we recognize that not everything went right from a law enforcement standpoint over those first three days,” said IMPD deputy chief Josh Barker.   “We recognize the tactics we used in the very beginning were not effective as they could have been.”

Deputy chief Josh Barker didn’t hide from criticism his department received in the report.

“This was a significant time in our city’s history and it’s our responsibility to learn from it to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future,” said Barker.

Protesters told the commission that the presence of IMPD officers in “riot gear…raised the temperature of the crowd significantly” during the opening hours of the protest on Monument Circle on Friday night.

IMPD did acquiesce to protester demands to move back from the Circle though the lack of identifiable protest leadership made communication with the demonstrators difficult.

While most of the protesters were from Indianapolis, the commission found no evidence of direct antifa involvement or large presence of non-local or non-Indiana actors.

Some protesters were found to be “antifa-influenced” in their dress and deportment; right-wing groups armed with long guns to supposedly protect downtown monuments were sighted.

The lack of IMPD’s “Independent Action Plan” contributed to the confusion and varied police response the first two nights of protests and rioting though officers took a less aggressive approach beginning Sunday night and continuing through the rest of the week.

“The failure of IMPD to develop a strategic plan focused on de-escalation…likely contributed to continued escalation of tensions between police and marchers,” the report found.

Protesters complained that IMPD’s blockage of egress from protest locations left them feeling “boxed in” and likely heightened tensions.

Some protester assumptions, such as that an IndyGo bus stalled on Capitol Avenue or the presence of IMPD officers exiting the back of ambulances, were unfounded or irrelevant to the escalation of incidents.

While IMPD commanders may have discussed their response plans earlier in the week, rank-and-file officers were largely left out of the planning or their orders downplayed the anticipation of widespread violence.

“Little if any actual planning took place,” found the report, and “internal communication was lacking,” while suggesting that IMPD officers should have been assigned 12-hour as opposed to eight-hour shifts.

The report found that even among IMPD top command there was an acknowledgment that more “white shirts” should have been present on the streets as opposed to being isolated several blocks away in a command center at the IFD Headquarters and later at the Regional Operations Center.

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office and IMPD needed to be in deeper consultation in the lead up to the protests and throughout the weekend as deputy prosecutors felt they should not go beyond the letter of the law when advising police about their options for arrests that weekend.

Hogsett and members of his staff, as well as this reporter, were interviewed by the commission.

In one of the few references to Hogsett’s role in the overseeing police conduct during the riots, the report found the mayor’s limited comments calling for peaceful demonstrations and mutual respect were uncommunicated to the protesters at large and that the mayor’s delayed response in not calling for a curfew until Sunday night, after two nights of destructive and murderous rioting, was hampered by COVID-19 pandemic executive orders issued previously by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Protesters faulted both the police and the mayor for not expressing sufficient empathy for their concerns.

The report found that IMPD did not deliberately exacerbate the tensions but rather officers responded to an overwhelming situation that they were neither trained for or expected and, in some cases, unequipped to handle.

Updated training to reflect national best practices is called for as the report noted the dispute between IMPD and the Indiana Law Enforcement Training Board regarding the department’s attempts to adopt new use of force policies and what it found to be state training standards that are not concurrent with 21st century best practices.

The report found that many of the officers on the streets were less experienced and there was a lack of “middle age” veteran officers on the frontlines those nights.

IMPD often responded with force when there was no danger present but an unlawful assembly was declared.

“Basic distrust” on behalf of the community toward its city’s police force was found to be the basis for the environment that led to the riots, a finding that the report said was common across the nation.

Finally, the report makes these recommendations:

  • Improved Training
  • Internal Planning and Communication
  • Use of De-Escalation Techniques Rather than “Disorder Control” Tactics
  • Avoid Excessive Use of Force
  • No Encircling of Crowds
  • Avoidance of Aggressive Posture
  • Improve Outreach to Community

IMPD has already instituted some of the above suggested changes as the result of internal reviews, consultation with the City County Council or in response to a lawsuit filed by Black Lives Matter versus the city for police use of riot control devices during the demonstrations.

Hogsett responded with a statement:

“During the weekend of May 29 through June 1, 2020, Indianapolis experienced one of the most significant events in the city’s history. As the murder of George Floyd led to sadness, anger, and turmoil across the country, Indianapolis witnessed unprecedented mass protests in support of racial justice. However, in this same moment, as emotions rose and tensions climbed, Indianapolis also experienced instances of rioting, looting, and violence. In the days following, it was clear we needed to understand more about the factors that contributed to such an event, about the response of law enforcement to the crisis, and about what Indianapolis could do different and better in the future. As a result, on June 22, 2020, I called for an independent review to ‘look at evidence relating to the law enforcement response over the timeframe, evaluating officer adherence to departmental policies and providing recommendations on future police action.’

Today, the panel’s released report does just that. I want to thank the members of the review committee for their work, skill, and expertise in producing this report. The report is thorough, critical, and offers a series of recommendations rooted in best practices that offer our City and IMPD a roadmap moving forward.

Since those days in late May and early June, IMPD has made a series of substantial changes, including reforms to IMPD’s Use of Force policy, the creation of a Use of Force Review Board, civilian additions to the General Orders Board, and operational changes to the department’s response to large-scale gatherings. These adjustments have been consequential, and Indianapolis has seen over 150 protests without similar incident since June 1. However, our work will not stop. IMPD will continue to adapt and improve its policies and practices to best serve the needs of Indianapolis, leading through transparency and community-led, community-engaged policing. We value the conclusions made by this report, respect the tremendous amount of work that went into this important document, and will work to implement the recommendations.”

City-County Council President Vop Osili also commented on the report:

“I want to thank former Federal Prosecutor Deborah Daniels, Dr. Sean Huddleston, and the Honorable Myra Selby for their service to the community and their work on the independent review panel tasked with thoughtfully investigating the events that unfolded in Indianapolis on May 29th – June 1st of last year. The Council will be equally thorough and thoughtful in reviewing their report. I look forward to our continued work with IMPD and the community to ensure the lessons learned from last summer result in real change as we continue to move forward to restore trust between our community and our law enforcement partners.”

IMPD Chief Randal Taylor also release a statement:

“Just like many cities across the country, our community was impacted by two nights of riots in May. The recommendations in this report are critical of IMPD leadership’s actions during that time, as they were intended to be. But the men and women who serve in our neighborhoods every day were the ones faced with the unprecedented violence that struck the heart of our city, and ultimately, returned peace to the Mile Square. I remain grateful for their efforts.

While violent unrest continued across several days in other cities, we adjusted our approach, and Indianapolis has since been host to more than 150 demonstrations without significant incident. We continue to take seriously our responsibility to protect the First Amendment rights of our community members. 

In June, I made a commitment that this police department would further its march toward progress. And that’s exactly what we have done – modernizing our use of force policies, adding the safety measures and de-escalation tactics recommended by the ACLU to written policy for the Event Response Group, banning no-knock warrants, deploying body cameras, and adding new layers of civilian oversight. We have also taken steps to better communicate with our neighbors during the pandemic through such efforts as virtual community meetings and releasing critical incident videos in a timely manner following officer involved shootings. This report represents another opportunity for us to make adjustments that better protect our officers and the community members they serve.

It is my hope that our dedication to accountability, transparency, and continuing to find ways to better serve our community helps to build trust and strengthen the police-neighborhood partnerships that create a safer Indianapolis.”

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